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Today’s story by Vince Guerrieri was originally published on June 20, 2018.
Nothing ever really dies on the internet. That’s how I ended up talking to the guy who was the infamous Baseball Bug.
Ron Chernek emailed me last week, saying he’d stumbled upon the article I’d written last year about the Baseball Bug, Cleveland’s short-lived mascot in the 1980 and 1981 season (actually, his son stumbled upon it; Chernek by his own admission isn’t particularly active on the internet or social media). He offered to tell his story and I offered to listen.
Chernek, 62, was a graduate student at Cleveland State working toward his MBA in the late 1970s. He was a Parma native who went to St. Ignatius High School and got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Dayton. While he was at CSU, he worked for Ned Welc, who also served as the public address announcer for the Indians.
The late 1970s weren’t good times for the Tribe. The team was terrible and Municipal Stadium hosted small crowds in a dilapidated setting. Something was needed, and mascots, once exclusively the province of college sports, were just starting to come into vogue in the major leagues. The San Diego Chicken led the way, followed by the Phillie Phanatic, and Cleveland wanted to jump on the bandwagon.
Welc encouraged Chernek to try out for the position. “I knew a little bit of gymnastics and I was still pretty limber, but as it turned out, in the interview, I didn’t have to bounce around,” he said. “I just sat there in my suit and answered questions in front of five or six people.”
Chernek said his father tried to temper his expectations, saying, “Don’t be surprised if you didn’t get it,” but a month later, he got a call from the Tribe. He was the new Baseball Bug. Eventually, he asked why and was told, “You were the most honest person we interviewed.”
The initial costume was big and furry, weighing about 30 pounds. Chernek said it wouldn’t fit in his washing machine, so legendary clubhouse manager Cy Buynak washed it at the stadium. Chernek talked to fans (a departure from the usually-silent antics of mascots), made public appearances for charity and profit, and once got Yankees owner (and Cleveland native) George Steinbrenner mad enough that he filed a protest with the league.
“I remember very vividly that Reggie Jackson struck out one day, and I was standing on the dugout,” Chernek recalls. “I turned around and shook my butt at him and made some crying motions. I was immediately summoned to the owner’s box and told I couldn’t do that.
“George Steinbrenner actually filed a protest with the league office about it, and I wasn’t allowed on the field or the dugout when the Yankees came to town.”
But otherwise, he could be found on the field – even during games.
“When a guy hit a home run and crossed home plate, I was allowed to go out there and give him a high-five,” he said. “I got to meet all the players, and I thought they’d treat me like a second-class citizen, but with just a couple exceptions, they were a genuinely nice people.”
For 1981, the costume got a redesign, with the head using a bicycle helmet as the base and a bodysuit with smaller shoes. It allowed a better field of vision and more range of movement. Chernek even ran the Revco 10K in it. “Well, I wore my own shoes,” he said. “I think I passed out at the end of the race.”
On Opening Day, he rode a minibike across the outfield and ended up leaping into the arms of Joe Charboneau, who won the American League Rookie of the Year Award the year before. That got him another trip to the principal’s office. “Gabe Paul was pissed,” he said, referring to the Indians team president. “Joe had nowhere near the season he had the year before, and for years afterward, my buddies used to tell me, ‘You screwed him up!’”
Two notable things happened in Cleveland baseball in 1981. The first was Len Barker’s perfect game, still the last no-hitter to date by an Indians pitcher. “When Rick Manning caught the final out in center field, I just sprinted out into the field,” Chernek said.
The other was the All-Star Game. Unfortunately, it was preceded by a players’ strike and delayed for a month. “I was supposed to go on Good Morning America during the strike, but they called the day before and said, ‘Something’s going on in Ireland and we have to bump you from the show.’ But I ended up on ‘Nightline’ for a mock game the day the All-Star Game was supposed to happen.”
After the 1981 season, the Bug was hung up. The Indians were operating on a shoestring budget, and transitioned into a new mascot called Tom E. Hawk, which would also advertise for WWWE, the radio station that carried the Indians (and the Cavs) at the time.
“They wanted me to do that, but I had just finished my MBA and was in the management program at National City Bank,” Chernek said. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Chernek later went back to school again, this time to law school, and maintains a practice in Chagrin Falls. On the side, he and a friend play in a band called Two Guys, Twelve Strings. He’ll tell stories to his friends or big baseball fans that he encountered about his time as the Indians mascot, but other than a bunch of pictures – including one of him dancing the polka with Steelers running back Rocky Bleier – he has little but memories.
“It was a unique couple of years,” he said.
Main photo courtesy of Ron Chernek